Interview: Steve McQueen, John Ridley, & Henry Louis Gates

12 Years a Slave - Steve McQueen

It’s an exceptionally rainy Saturday morning outside a conference room at the Royal York Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival, where filmmaker Steve McQueen, writer John Ridley, and historian Henry Louis Gates have assembled with their production team and composer Hans Zimmer to meet the press and talk about their work on 12 Years a Slave, which had its debut the evening prior. It’s a sombre film, and the mood inside the room is serious, but full of approval and one would dare say relief that the film has been received by audiences so enthusiastically on its opening night at the festival. This is, of course, all before the film would be named the People’s Choice Award winner the following weekend and would go on to generate some of the biggest Oscar buzz of the season.

Based on the real life narrative of Solomon Northup – an African American free man and violinist from Saratoga, New York who was drugged and duped by potential by potential business partners and sold into slavery – McQueen and Ridley team up with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and an all star cast to tell a story of lost freedom, hardship, and just how crushingly brutal slavery in the pre-Civil War American South truly was.

As accomplished a director as he is a visual artist, McQueen is no stranger to fare designed to force the audience into a long hard look at themselves, previously teaming up with actor Michael Fassbender (appearing here as a brutal, loutish, latently self-loathing slave owner) for Hunger and Shame. Ridley has worked extensively in film and television (as well as a bestselling novelist) in a variety of genres and works ranging from Oliver Stone’s U-Turn to the beloved cult favourite Undercover Brother. Gates is a well known historian, scholar, writer, lecturer and educator currently serving as a professor at Harvard University and served as the film’s primary historical consultant.

We talked to Gates, McQueen, and Ridley about the history behind Solomon Northup’s life, how the story came to the filmmakers, if they thought the truth of slavery being depicted on screen would be too much for audiences to handle, what Ridley found most painful about the writing process, and why McQueen believes cinema is the greatest of all art forms.

What was the actual historical significance of Solomon’s writing at the time it was published?

Henry Louis GatesHenry Louis Gates: This is all based on a true story. The book was published in 1853. It was written in two months. It was published on July 15th, 1853, and it was a runaway best seller. Solomon Northup actually existed. He was minding his business, and he fell for this ruse, and he ended up a slave. Just shy of 12 years later, he miraculously escapes, and as soon as he gets back, he wants to tell his story.

And, indeed, when he published the book, they were able to identify the two guys who tricked him and bring them to trial, but unfortunately they were never punished for what they did.

When the book was published it sold 27,000 copies over the first 18 months, which in the 19th century was unheard of with the exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many, many scholars have written about this book and I’m a scholar for slave narratives in particular, but this is the first film ever done that has ever been made based on any of the 101 known slave narratives written by fugitive slaves. And of that 101 made before the end of the Civil War, only one is the testimony of a man or woman who was first free, then made a slave, and then free again.

I love the metaphor of resurrection, because if you think about the plot, it’s about a man who’s sent to hell and resurrected. So it’s a Christ-like figure, but literally what Steve and John and what everyone has been doing here is resurrecting a man who has been lost. You know, not only lost in that he was a slave, but in that we still ultimately never found out what happened to him at the end of his life.

This man was, next to Frederick Douglass, the bestselling black author in history. He was celebrated from coast to coast. There were even two stage versions of 12 Years a Slave, of which the first one was in New York STARRING HIM, and that completely bombed, which is another story because he didn’t seem to be too happy about that. (laughs) But then about four or so years after that, he was gone! And we don’t know what happened to him. But now with all the attention from this that’s being drawn to Solomon Northup, I think he will show up again and we’ll have a happy reunion with his history and have some closure and it will be a great day!

The reason why we don’t know what happened to him, and this is purely speculative, is that he must have died after Reconstruction ended. These guys who wrote these slave narratives like Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup were superstars, and then the Civil War hits, and had he died during the Civil War, there undoubtedly would have been an obituary somewhere. But when Reconstruction hit from 1866 to 1876, all of these laws came up, like the Jim Crow laws, that were designed to put the Negro back into slavery, and eventually they did that. The term “separate but equal” was only codified in 1896. So we think now that it has been around all the time, but it wasn’t. There was a long time where they were kind of trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and so all those guys who were superstars of the anti-slavery movement just fell into obscurity because there was no movement anymore. It was the worst time in history to be black. I’m sure he died somewhere in between 1876 and the turn of the century, though. That would make the most sense.

The miracle to me is how the filmmakers found this. I had been teaching this for years and then one day I just get an email saying, “Hey, we’re making a film about this.” And I was like, “What?” (laughs) They were very faithful to the text. I was amazed.

Steve, you had said you had wanted to make a film about slavery for a while. What made you gravitate towards Solomon’s story and make it into a film? And John, what made you want to write about it?

Steve McQueen: It did start with me wanting to make a film about slavery, and it was all about trying to find an “in.” There’s just something gripping about a narrative about a free man who gets forced into slavery, and through that journey and horrid circumstance with him coming out the other end, the audience goes through that same journey.

My wife actually brought 12 Years a Slave to my attention, and with every turn of the page it was like a revelation. There’s something about Solmon’s story that’s on the level of someone experiencing something as tremendous as Anne Frank, but this was written almost a hundred years before Anne Frank. It had such a grip on me in the same way. It had such a power. I just had to make this film. That was it.

John RidleyJohn Ridley: It’s funny because I hear all these individuals say to me that making this film was a “no brainer,” and I think as you look at the power and the magnitude that everyone brought to the production, it certainly is a no brainer. But I think the reality is that from the moment I sat down with Steve and the producers, they saw things that were beyond the pale. Remember that this was a book that had really largely been lost, and Steve and his wife had found it, and everyone I talked to about the project had an intense knowledge of these stories, and there’s power and beauty in there, but it takes a bit of excavating. In the end, I think everyone here had that vision, but I think there’s a difference between having an individual vision of something like this and getting together with everyone here to present something like this. And I am eternally grateful to Steve for allowing me to be a part of it, and for the producers to set me up for it, because it was a very unusual circumstance. It wasn’t a development situation when I came on. It was all very speculative. So for everybody to take that chance, and then live up to that level is phenomenal, and that’s the true story.

Were you ever concerned at any point about going too far to bring the film to a wider audience? How hard was it to balance the reality of the situation and still be respectful to the actual struggle, heartbreak, and emotion at the heart of it?

Steve McQueen: It definitely was a balance. I mean, the book is full of brutality that’s as such that it’s almost not strong enough to use that word. The hard part really was trying to find that balance so you could actually depict that sort of behaviour in the film. I think with John Ridley working on the script and the editing, a lot of it was at first and last up to them. Really in the editing process of both halves it’s really a lot up to them to strike that balance. During filming you can kind of work on the structure and see what works and what doesn’t within the trajectory of the narrative.

John Ridley: If you have a chance to take a look at the memoir, it doesn’t take what we really consider to be today a traditional and indeed quite non-linear path. Steve and I discussed the length and how it should come together and how it should be laid out, but the interesting thing about Steve is that with him there are no absolutes. So all throughout that script stage and whatever came after it, there was always a lot of support. Going into it there was always that concept that if each scene works and has its own particular power, it doesn’t have to be locked into a particular timeline or a specific set of rules. It can be in some ways like a jewel box. All of these moments play out in individual ways and could be put together in various different ways.

But as you go through and you look at these really tough moments in the story and you go to make the film, you know it’s going to be hard, and each of them are so powerful on their own, and they speak to each other as a whole so poignantly. They are like little gifts that develop these characters and allow us to never forget who they are. And there’s something about the way that Steve creates that creative space without ever having this fear of “This has to be this way NOW” or “Things will go bad if I don’t turn it in like THIS.” It’s great to work on something where that’s never the case.

Steve McQueen: You’ll see in the book how these things really played out. You’ll see as an introduction at the beginning of each chapter what’s going to happen. It’s actually already really well structured.

For me, I’m looking at something in reality and history that’s actually happened, so you could never ask for a better starting point. Then it’s a matter of how to sort of bring that to the screen visually. There’s one thing to look at slave narratives. There’s another thing to looking at pictures and past depictions of slavery. It’s another thing to bring the reality of it to the screen. That’s the shock for the audience right now, and that’s what I’m feeling. For the audience to see these images and to see what really happened, that’s the power in how you present it to an audience.

I don’t know, it’s kind of strange in a way that it has sort of had that kind of reaction, but that’s the power of cinema. For me, this is why cinema is the best form of art in the world. You’re presenting something that you resurrected, and you are giving it life and giving it breath, and if people respond to it, that’s great. It means you are trying to tell a form of truth on screen. Whatever that is.

I think it would be hard to constantly make something like this with the subject matter involved your job on a day to day basis, and to have to live with this sort of subject this intimately. How did you, John, cope with that?

John Ridley: I would say going into it, no one put any filters on us in terms of the language or what should or shouldn’t be shown. Everyone went in with that concept that we were always going to go down that road and unflinchingly show what happened.

For me personally, to write and tell this story, there were things in the original text that weren’t that surprising to me. I think the thing that I carried away with me and that was very painful to me was to be able to see this larger canvas. And reading these histories and understanding that slavery was not something that was very cut and dry. It went from indentured servitude to slavery that was identified by racial inferiority and then canonized again and again by the law all the way up until Plessy Vs. Ferguson in 1896. So the thing that was painful to me was to read these stories even about free black men.

Now this might be a semantic discussion, but when people talk about the film being a slave narrative, but the narrative going into it is one of a free man. A FREE man. One who became a slave for 12 years of his life. And to read stories like this of free people of colour who truly saw the creeping tide of slavery coming, and of individuals who truly said they would no longer have children because they thought they knew what was to come for them, THAT was the most powerful thing for me.

Henry Louis Gates: There were even some cases where people would kill the child to avoid it.

John Ridley: It was exactly that kind of not being able to envision any other future, and to discuss and get involved in these things where people can’t see any sort of brighter future, that’s a real kind of pain to me as a father. That’s what I carried with me the most.

Henry Louis Gates: And just as a footnote to that, only 10% of the African American community was free by 1860. Of that 10%, and this was a very curious fact, slightly more lived in the South than in the North, which is totally counterintuitive to think about, but that was the way it was. The thinking behind that was that if you were free and you got your freedom from a master in the South, one of the stipulations was that they gave you property. So what are you going to do? You’re not going to leave your property and your friends just to go to the North. You’ll stay in the South.

By 1860 there were 220,000 free Negros in the North. That was Solomon Northup’s community, but that was out of 4.4 million black people in the country.